Bullying and the Bystander

Bullying and the Bystander

The Bystander as Victim, Participant, or Defender

Most freedom from bullying efforts miss one of the biggest factors in the arena of bullying, the bystander. When it comes to bullying, there’s not such thing as uninvolved. Even those who are not active players in the incident are still victims, participants, or defenders depending on their actions.

The most effective way to end bullying is to enable bystanders to be defenders rather than victims or participants. Peers have a huge impact on each other, and one student can sway an entire group to help or harm others. Before we further discuss how to enable the bystander, let’s take a closer look at how bystanders are involved.

How Bullying Hurts the Bystander

We already know that targets are not the only victims. Bullies are much more likely to end up in prison, abuse drugs, and perpetuate domestic violence later in life. But what about the bystanders as victims?

New research out of Penn State has studied bystanders more in-depth. It concluded that witnesses of bullying are victimized when they take no action to stop the bullying. They also suffer negative effects throughout their lives.

  • Fear – Students who regularly witness bullying feel much more fear and anxiety, even if they are not the target of the bullying. Students fear they could be the bully’s next target. They live with a sense of insecurity that can cause psychological damage well into adulthood. This loss of security makes it more difficult for them to trust others or build solid, healthy relationships.
  • Stress – Witnessing bullying taking place increases the bystander’s heart rate and causes them to sweat. These are physical signs of stress. Stress can also reveal itself through a drop in grades. When bystanders become stressed out by the bullying atmosphere of a school, they lose interest in academics and are more likely to skip school.
  • Guilt – Bystanders know they should do something to stand up for the victim. Most of them recognize that bullying is wrong and want to stop it. When they don’t take action to end bullying, they feel an intense sense of guilt and shame that can manifest in other poor decisions, like drugs and alcohol. They may even turn to bullying, perceiving it as a way to regain self-esteem.
  • Reduced Empathy – When bystanders continually witness bullying but to nothing, their ability to empathize with the victim diminishes significantly. They may even begin to believe that the target deserves to be bullied. The longer a bystander goes without intervening, the less likely they are to ever intervene.

How Bystanders Participate

Many students actually join the bully in tormenting the victim. Bullies have power over other people, which they exert to gain more power over more people. It is their social currency. Bystanders recognize the power play and assess their own standing in relation to it.

This results in different behaviors. Sometimes bystanders will actually instigate bullying by prodding the bully into an attack on another person. This instigator may be one of the bully’s henchmen, or it may be someone entirely unrelated to the bully angling to increase their own social currency without attacking the person themselves.

Some teens will take the opportunity to join the bully in the attack. It could be joining in a physical bullying attack, or adding to the verbal/social abuse of the target. This includes going along with the bully to exclude the target from social activities. Whatever form it takes, the bystander become a bully right along with the original attacker.

When a group of bystanders laugh and/or cheer the bully on, it encourages the bully to escalate the attack. These bystanders are participating in the attack and are as culpable as the bully even though they are not the ones doing the bullying.

The majority of bystanders will watch and do nothing. The simple act of granting the bully an attentive audience encourages the bullying to continue. As previously stated, bullies bully because it gives them social currency. The bully perceives their attention as approval, which encourages him or her to continue the attack.

Remember, when we’re talking about a bullying attack, we’re not just referring to physical bullying, but verbal and/or social bullying as well.

From Bystander to Defender

One of the major goals of any anti-bullying effort should be to turn bystanders into defenders. They have the greatest power to put an end to bullying. They can either provide the bully with further social currency, or they can take it away. When one person stands up and tells a bully to stop, the attack with usually end within six to eight seconds.

Defenders can intervene either directly or indirectly. Direct intervention would include verbally defending the victim or discouraging the bully. In person, that can be as simple as saying ‘Stop that. Leave him/her alone,” or befriending the target after they have been socially excluded by the bully. Some heroic teens have even stepped up to intervene when things get physical. This is the heroism we want to instill in bystanders.

The same principles also apply online. The West High Bros are a great example of teens who stood up to rampant cyberbullying in their schools. They dedicated a Twitter account to post encouraging things about other people, especially people they witnessed being targeted by bullies.

Indirect defenders will report the incident to an adult. Some schools have made this easier by setting up a phone number where teens can anonymously text reports of bullying. Any of these actions moves the bystander from victimization or participation to a position of strength that will help put an end to bullying.

Most bystanders start out wanting to do the right thing. If you as a parent or educator want to help put an end to bullying, the best strategy is to empower the bystanders to do what they know is the right thing. Let them know that they are the best protectors of their peers.

Why Bystanders don’t Step Up

Bystanders don’t take action for various reasons. They don’t know what to say. They’re afraid of becoming the next target. They don’t recognize the attack for what it is. They may feel like it’s none of their business or not their responsibility to intervene. They may feel powerless to do anything. Some of them actually think the target deserves to be abused. Many also don’t think that reporting will do any good.

As parents and educators, we must discuss these things with students and be prepared to answer their questions. Assure them that if they’re not defending the target, they’re aiding the bully. Make sure they know that bullying takes many forms. Discuss how verbal and social bullying are still just as serious as physical bullying. Talk about how it is everyone’s responsibility to end bullying. Go over a few phrases bystanders can say to discourage the bully, like the one mentioned above. Make sure they know that no one deserves to be bullied for any reason at any time. Also, make sure you assure them that any report of bullying will be taken seriously and then makes sure that you follow up with action.

When teens overcome their fears and stand up for the target, they replace fear with empowerment. They take back control over the anxiety and insecurity they experienced while passively watching bullying occur. They are part of the solution. They are the heroes.

Learn more about bullying on our bullying topic page.

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